This year, Durham has announced the new Sproxton Stagecraft Scholarship, which will provide £4,000 per year to students with limited funding who want to develop their skills in the technical side of theatre. Interview editor Aimee Dickinson chatted to Durham alumnus David Sproxton about his sponsorship of this new scholarship, the importance of acknowledging behind the scenes roles in the theatre industry, and how his experiences working in the Durham theatre scene went on to shape his career.
Q: What did you study at Durham University?
A: I took Geography as I wanted to know how the world worked.
Q: What aspects of theatre did you get involved in during your time at Durham?
A: I threw myself into the technical side, which initially was stage lighting, as I had great interest in how lighting could affect how we feel emotionally. I recall working on ‘Billy Liar’ directed by Chris Terril, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ which featured Andy McFarlane (now Sir), a wild Christmas show by Manticore, ‘Andorra’ directed by Don Wynn and a good few others. I became Technical Director of Durham University Theatre for a year, that was a laugh! The after-show parties resulted in me forgetting most of what had gone before!
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of founding Aardman Animations?
A: We didn’t really “found” the company as such with a distinct plan. Peter Lord and I had been doing bits of animation for ‘Vision On’ during our summer holidays and after we graduated, we thought we should see whether we could carry on doing that for a while before we had to get “proper” jobs. The work built up gradually and so our “hobby” evolved into something more formal as we took on more people to help us. Curiously, although we had registered the name “Aardman Animations” as students, we didn’t make it a limited company until much later.
Q: What was it like to set up your own animation company?
A: It was exciting at the time to build up a minor reputation. The launch of Channel 4 in 1982 was a major stepping stone for us and a good few other animators, leading us to start making TV commercials, which really set us up for the longer-term projects like The Wrong Trousers.
Q: What are your favourite projects that you’ve worked on in your career?
Really too many to list, but the feature films are great things to work on, especially the early ones like Chicken Run and Curse of the Wererabbit.
Q: How important did participation in student theatre end up being to your career?
A: I was able to experiment with light and colour and also learn a great deal about teamwork, how a production develops and evolves into something wonderful with the right team and leadership. When I discovered the Music School’s Electronic Studio I also created soundtracks for the shows. It’s also great to see the reaction of a live audience, instant feedback!
Q: What motivated you to create the Stagecraft Scholarship? What is it aiming to achieve?
A: There’s a tendency for people to focus on those in the limelight, literally and metaphorically, meaning those that are audience facing, like actors, directors etc. Theatre, TV and film all depend on a veritable army of technicians with all manner of skills, whose names may appear in the credits; but you rarely get to understand what they actually do on a production. There’s a real need to provide the inspiration for people to consider those behind-the-scenes roles as a potential career. Further, it’s harder for students these days to develop extra-curricular interests to any great degree, especially if they come from less well-off families, as there is the pressure to earn money to cover fees and living costs whilst at University. A bursary is a way of mitigating those pressures and allowing someone the time to develop other skills and build experience. As well as the fun that can be had, being part of a team producing a show can influence what people might go on to do in the future. I felt it would be a nice idea to enable someone to have that fun-filled experience.
Q: How important is the technical aspect of theatre?
A: Well, if the lights don’t go on you won’t see anything! But seriously, theatre has much greater dependency on technology than people might realise, and without skilled artists and technicians, today’s theatre would be a very different experience.
Q: What role does economic inequality play in preventing certain people from entering the theatre industry? How important is it to level out the playing field in the theatre/ stagecraft industry?
A: Like many of the creative industries, theatre is a precarious industry in terms of employment, most roles bring freelance. So, if you haven’t a bit of cash behind you to make a start in the industry it may not be an area you would consider. Further, those with less money will be less likely to have experienced theatre and might not consider working in theatre as a potential career.
Q: Right now the theatre industry is struggling due to Covid-19; how important is it to continue to fund the arts and theatre?
A: History shows that when there is a crisis like a pandemic, people are desperate to get back together again to experience things collectively, whether that’s theatre, films, football or music, once the crisis is over. During WW2 morale was kept up with cinemas being kept open and theatres running. We’ve seen in this pandemic the importance of entertaining people at home, with people glued to Netflix, theatres streaming shows and TV ensuring kids get both entertained and educated. I think once we’re out of this crisis there will be a huge surge in people wanting to get back together again in theatres and cinemas and the like, so it’s critical that the industry is ready and waiting and fully prepared with the necessary skills to meet the demand. We know that culture is critical to people’s wellbeing, so the arts and theatre are going to be crucial as we rebuild our society post-Covid.
Q: What advice do you have for a student who is looking to pursue a career in theatre or stagecraft?
A: Find ways of gaining experience, whether that’s student theatre, amateur dramatics, or helping out at your local theatre. Look into courses, work out what area appeals to you and don’t be afraid to take opportunities that appear, you never know where they might lead.
Image: Aardman Animations